Hong Kong after the vote

A BUNGLED walkout by China loyalists contributed to a vote in Hong Kong's Legislative Council that many would see as a resounding defeat of Beijing's blueprint for the 2017 chief executive election. The constitutional reform package, which required a two-thirds majority to pass, was likely to have been rejected in any case given the strength of democrats in the 70-strong legislature who had vowed to block it. However, the walkout by 31 loyalist lawmakers, in an attempt to delay a vote, resulted in a 28-8 defeat for the government that would suggest that the reform proposals enjoyed absolutely no popular salience in Hong Kong.

That conclusion would convey the wrong impression. The reforms would have given all residents the right to vote for the chief executive for the first time, but restricted the exercise of the franchise to choosing among candidates vetted by a loyalist committee. It was the second half of the deal that incensed democrats, who believe that free elections must mean not just the right to vote but also the right to choose among contending hopefuls free to present themselves for election in the first place. However, many Hong Kongers might have decided to go with even incremental electoral advances. Their presence was not reflected in the "no" vote because of the walkout.

It might appear bewildering that the democrats of Hong Kong, which as a British colony enjoyed no democracy, should be consumed about safeguarding residents from what they regard as China's attempt to foist "fake democracy" on the territory. Arguably, however, the economic freedoms and civil liberties of Hong Kong were preserved by ultimate default under Westminster Britain, whereas the Leninist political structures of China make it necessary for Hong Kong to protect its freedoms itself. Be that as it may, the first consequence of the historic Hong Kong vote is that China might adopt a more interventionist line on the city's affairs, confounding the attempts of those seeking to reverse Beijing's management of local politics.

Going too far in the direction of control would not be good for Hong Kong, any more than moving to an era of adversarial politics would. Since its handover by Britain to China in 1997, the city's prospects have rested on a fine and evolving balance struck among the demands of economic vitality, political stability and receptivity to popular sentiment. Without any of these ingredients, Hong Kong would not be the Chinese global city that it is today. Its administration would contribute to upholding that balance by addressing the economic disparities that have fuelled popular discontent, particularly over rising property prices.